Yeah Sound Mate

A few weeks ago, I found myself in Victoria station with a few hours to kill. Reaching in my bag for my PSP, I stopped myself. “Better not,” I thought, “don’t wanna use up the battery.” I still had a coach journey ahead of me. So I wandered into Smith’s and bought good old Edge magazine. After a few jars of Carling and a hearty laugh or two (maybe too hearty, considering I was on my own) at the Pegg, Brooker, Lineham and Bansey roundtable interview, I was going over the ‘Incoming’ section. (For those of you that don’t know, the ‘Incoming’ section is the preview part of Edge that features several games, each with one screenshot and a few lines of text that normally sum up the game and/or its development.) I always find this section interesting, as both the developers and Edge are trying to give the reader a good idea of what the game is about and how it will play. Almost all the time Edge does a wonderful job. In fact, looking at the copy I have in my hand right now, I can see Nintendo’s Super Princess Peach and from the screen I can tell you it’s standard Nintendo cutesy platform fun. Atari’s Timeshift: A sci-fi FPS. Polarium Micro: A GBA port of a DS puzzle game.

I then look at Frontier’s The Outsider. What do I get? A picture of two plastic looking men: one’s a stereotypical action hero No. 108 and the other a bald man shouting behind him. So what the hell am I supposed to get from this picture? What should I be looking forward to abou thi...Oh...I see now, it’s because the guy has over four billion polygons to render the crease in his head (brought on by his macho thousand-yard-stare) and I can see the individual teeth (approximately six billion polys, give or take a few) of the guy behind him shouting. That’s what I’m supposed to be excited about? Fucking teeth? I let out a loud sigh (probably too loud considering I was on my own) and look around the station. I wonder how long it took those developers to make that guy's teeth. How many hours? How many people? How much money?

On teeth.

I’ll tell you something. I’ll confess, here’s a big secret, Frontier, something you clearly have been denied the knowledge of: when I, or many others, am running around shooting robots, or solving mysteries, or killing prostitutes or whatever the hell it is I do in The Outsider, I REALLY can’t see myself stopping and saying to myself “This is great! Did you see that guy’s teeth before I blew his head off? Fuck! I’m so immersed!”

So I’m looking around the station. They need to do something better with their time, with that power. With our damn money. I want to be immersed in a game. I wan’t to pat my 360/PS3/Revolution with affection and whisper a “Thank you” as I walk away from having finished a truly next-gen game. Something that couldn’t have been done before. Something that’s immersed me to a point where I’ve been emotionally attached to it from the start. Now, I‘m not claiming for a second I can do that; if I could I’d be a games developer. But as a consumer who puts a lot of goddamn money into the industry, I can at least tell them what I’d like to see...or indeed hear. I close my eyes and rest my head on my arms for a few minutes. Now, I can’t see a damn thing but I still know I’m in a train station. I hear footsteps, thousands of them; people’s voices, thousands of them; train delay announcements, thousands of them. People’s iPod headphones going past; individual conversations floating in and out of ear shot. The faint sound of a child having a tantrum. I could go on and on. But that’s what I want the next-gen to bring me. Instead of a guy wasting his time sat in front of a computer bump-mapping an incisor or a wisdom tooth, he could be spending his time walking around with a microphone recording hundreds and thousands of sound samples, and adding them to the people, the cars, the machines. It will take up disc space, but more so than a million-plus polygon forehead wrinkle?

If we look at some of the most immersive games we’ve had over the last few years they’ve got it right. Even with the limited hardware. Rockstar’s GTA series has been one of the leaders when it comes to immersion in games. Tell me, when playing GTA: Vice City, were you immersed by the different radio stations playing every time you got in a car, the police radio playing out of the police car, and the passers-by telling you to “Watch where you’re going!” or was it the basic modelled cars, the block buildings, and the bad draw distances?

Now, of course the visuals are a massive part of the immersion, still probably the largest. But how much more does the sound ADD? When first setting foot in the world of Mario 64, how different would it have felt if that bird wasn’t singing on its own? The faint sound of the wind blowing past our ears? It was simple but it worked. Now imagine with the power of the next gen machines what can be done. Imagine in GTA walking past cars and hearing different radio stations blare out of the car as it drives past you, REAL conversations happening as a couple pass you. People’s footsteps in the distance, beeping, laughing, and train announcements. The faint sound of a child having a tantrum. Now does that seem more realistic, more immersive to you than some shiny bald man’s teeth?

Disagree? Good. Tell me on the forum.